Iran’s most powerful official, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says the Holocaust is a myth. But Iranian Jews who lived in Europe during the Second World War knew better. They experienced first-hand the Nazis’ genocidal ambitions and had to evade the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police. Some European Jews who fled the Nazis, meanwhile, traveled to Iran as refugees.
This article is part of IranWire's series about little-known stories of Iran and the Holocaust, and was originally published on April 2016, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Eldad Pardo is an Israeli with a passion for Iran. A lecturer in Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of Predicting Revolutions, a study on Iranian cinema, Pardo traces his interest in Iran to his family’s ordeal as refugees during the Second World War.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west. On the September 17, The Soviet Union, which enjoyed a non-aggression agreement with Germany under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in Moscow the previous month, invaded from the east. Pardo's family, then living in Krakow, had to flee their home. Pardo’s grandparents, mother, and uncle took their chances with the Russians, and fled east. They ended up being forcibly deported to a remote settlement in Siberia.
On June 22, 1941, Germany violated the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact, invading the Soviet Union, which in turn joined the Allies. While Iran was officially neutral at this time, Britain and the Soviet Union saw its military-nationalist leader, Reza Shah, as pro-German. Iran had oil vital to the Allies' war effort, and was an obvious supply route from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. Britain and the Soviets jointly invaded and occupied Iran on August 25, 1941.
Under the terms of British-Soviet alliance, the Soviet Union allowed captured Polish forces under general Władysław Anders to make their way to British-controlled Palestine through Iran. Pardo's family traveled to Iran as refugees with the Anders Army.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day in May 2016, IranWire spoke to Pardo about his family's experiences.
Can you describe the life your family lived in Poland before the Second World War?
They lived in Krakow. They were part of the small percentage of Polish Jews who were both fully assimilated and well-to-do. My grandfather Karol Pisek, who the family called Lolek, was educated as a lawyer, and also ran a business importing spare parts for German cars. They had a good life. The traveled all over Europe by car, and they had a new car every year, which in the 1930s was really something. The family went skiing, riding and practiced other fancy sports. For the most part, they were Polish like everyone else. My grandma, Irena Fromowicz-Pisek, had a PhD in art. One of her sisters, Henryka Fromowicz-Stillerową, was an art historian and activist as well as the co-editor, just before the war, of a youth magazine called Window to the World. Being a prominent intellectual activist, she was murdered by the Nazis immediately after the occupation in 1941. A third sister, Maria Fromowicz-Simeoni, the family's paintress, moved to Italy and married a Catholic man in Milan. My mom, Hanita Pardo-Pisek, who was known as Anita, and my uncle Avigdor Posèq, known as Vitek, were children.
How did your family experience the German and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939?
Lolek, sensing the state of emergency, had wanted to leave Europe before the war. But my grandmother had refused. Her mother had had her leg amputated and was confined to a wheelchair.
Lolek knew there was a threat to Poland from both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, so he located the geometric center of Poland of the time, a place called Zamość, and rented a house there. When the war broke out, he took the family there. He planned to return to Krakow to resume his work, but it was impossible. The German war machine had moved too fast. Stuka dive-bombers were spreading fear. Warplanes attacked Anita and Lolek while they were collecting potatoes in the fields. Soon the tanks arrived too, and my family was trapped under Nazi occupation.
The Germans were cruel, particularly toward Jews, but not only. They chased people in the streets and confiscated cars and homes. They wanted to seize the house where my family stayed, but the blond and German-speaking Irena convinced them to look elsewhere.
Luckily, the town was soon turned over to the Russians, who were still Germany's allies at the time. Some of the townspeople and refugees were overjoyed to see the Russians arriving, but my family remained unconvinced. In another turn of fate, the Soviets planned to withdraw, so my family faced a difficult decision. Nobody fathomed a genocide was beginning to unfold. For them, the Germans were cruel and hateful, but Stalin's Russia was even more intimidating. My family assembled a nighttime gathering and decided to leave things to fate. If it rained in the morning, they would stay with the Germans, and if it was sunny, they would go with the Russians.
Fortunately, it was a sunny day. Their car had been stolen by then, so they rented a cart and horses with what remained of their money and traveled to the city of Lwów, which is now Lviv in Ukraine. The road was frightening. There were burnt houses, wrecks of military vehicles, and corpses scattered along the way.
Lwów was ruined. But by another stroke of luck, Lolek discovered his stolen car. Swiftly sold lest it be confiscated by the Soviets, the car brought some much-needed money. My family stayed in Lwów during the cold winter of 1939-40. My mom studied in a Russian school and joined the Komsomol, the Russian Communist youth movement. But life in under the Soviets was no picnic.
What motive did the Soviet authorities have to force them to resettle in Siberia?
At first, the Soviet authorities spread the news that refugees who so wished could return to western Poland and live under German rule. As it turned out, all those wishing to return, and many others, were deemed “non-reliable,” and sent to Siberia. Those deemed more reliable were resettled close to home in Western Ukraine. My family was offered the chance to settle in central Russia. In hindsight, the resettlement in Siberia proved to be a blessing. The Germans later invaded and killed almost all the Jews in Ukraine. The Russians also allowed my aunt, Henryka, to stay because she was an invalid. What a tragedy!
My family thought they would be transferred to Moscow. This is what they thought was meant by "Central Russia." Instead, with hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees, they were sent to Siberia in cattle wagons, with one hole in the center to serve as a toilet. A number of families were packed into each wagon.
But after 14 days’ travel, they got off the train near the Sosva River. Russian officers separated people, ordering them to go to the right or to the left, often dividing families arbitrarily. They were taken on a long trip by boat, and finally were marched for miles into the forest, until they reached their destination, the deserted little settlement of Gladkovski Possialok. Waiting for them were tiny wooden houses originally built by “Kulaks”—“class-enemy” farmers who were singled out for destruction in the early 1930s. The camp was surrounded by the Taiga's endless forests and covered with clouds of big nasty black mosquitos. My family was told they would live there forever, performing hard work for the government.
But they were not prisoners at least, and Irena knew that according to Soviet law, she could stay home as long as she did not begin working. She bravely defied the camp commander and stayed home. With seeds and other supplies received from my aunt Henryka in Lwów, and with Anita's hard work and resourcefulness, they secured plenty of food.
After the 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia, packages stopped arriving. Lwów became one of the worst places to be in Europe. The Germans sadistically tortured and killed the entire Jewish population. Immediately after the occupation, they shot my aunt, who had been on their lists. Executed as a leader, at least she did not have to suffer like all the people who struggled to survive before being killed.
How did your family get attached to the Anders Army that was allowed to travel to Iran?
The Nazi invasion changed the fate of hundreds of thousands of Poles stranded in Siberia. Following the invasion, the Soviets and the British, now allies, occupied Iran. The Soviets allowed the deported people to leave and agreed to the formation of a Polish army on Russian soil. The camp commander in Gladkovski Possialok assembled everybody and duly declared that they were all “granted amnesty.” This meant that these refugees and deportees could leave the camp and move around in Soviet Union, excluding large cities. But where could they go? The good weather of the Fergana Valley attracted many refugees. Many others had Iran in mind. So here began the great Polish and Jewish great migration to the south.
Once again, they were on trains, this time not as deportees, but as refugees. The journey took weeks and weeks on end, as military trains rushing westward took precedence. Food was scarce, the weather was extremely cold or extremely hot, and nobody knew where they were heading. In the railway stations, people tried to gather food, but the train often began moving without any notice, and people were lost to their families. Army people tried from time to time to force people out of the train to settle on collective farms. Finally, they arrived in Shahrisabz via Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where they lived for a while at the home of a Bokharan Jewish family and even learned some Tajiki Persian.
More importantly, in Shahrisabz the sixth infantry division of the just-formed Polish army of General Władysław Anders was stationed. Grandpa Lolek immediately tried to enlist in the army, but they would not take Jews. He finally arranged to become a civil officer in charge of transportation, which had been his specialty. Then came the big opportunity. The Anders army planned to move to Iran.
Unfortunately, Lolek caught severe typhus, but he insisted that the family leave immediately. So Irena, with her sick mother and two children, Anita and Vitek, joined the army with many other refugees. After an extremely tortuous ordeal without Lolek, they arrived at Bandar Pahlavi, which is now Anzali, in Gilan Province, by the Caspian Sea.
They went with this army all the way to Tehran, via Qazvin, in large trucks, and were put in a refugee camp. By that time Vitek, who was maybe five or six, became very sick. People in Tehran, mostly the Jewish community, wanted to help these refugees, and they offered them the chance to move to the city. My family didn’t go, in part because Irena was very proud, but also because Vitek almost died, and she had to stay with him in the hospital. My mom, who was in her early teens, was very resourceful. She became a nanny for an English family, who happened to be the family of the head of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Then there was a miracle. One day my uncle Vitek was walking in the street and he saw his father, Lolek.
What did they say about life as Jewish refugees in Iran? What were their interactions with Iranians like?
The situation of Jews in Iran was precarious before the Allied invasion. The regime being neutral but pro-Nazi, some people began fancying Jewish property. But by the time my family arrived, this type of anti-Jewish sentiment had disappeared. Indeed, they never encountered any anti-Jewish feelings in Iran.
Most Iranians were very hospitable, particularly the ladies of the Jewish community. There were many poor people at the time and, consequently, thieves and pickpockets abounded. As refugees, people had to sell and buy things. In Bandar Pahlavi, some people sold dates, eggs and bread to the refugees, while others stole from them. Many thefts also happened on Tehran's buses. Lolek's wallet was stolen. Young Iranian men also were coming with their cars to the refugee camps around Tehran to pick out young refugee girls. Anita, who had been a good-looking and pretty developed 15-year-old, had to go often to town to trade things. Irena insisted on her using the bus, which was not a pleasant experience in those days.
But generally speaking, my family was infatuated with Iran and the Iranians. The Jewish community invested much effort to help the refugees and invited them to their homes for holiday dinners, gave them clothing and other gifts, which Irena was too proud to take. All the family was severely sick, and the conditions in the hospitals were bad. Among those physicians who tried harder, she noted a number of Iranian doctors.
Later on, however, their living conditions gradually improved. In fact, Irena wanted the family to stay and live in Iran for good. She found the country hospitable and beautiful. As an aficionado of arts and culture, she was fascinated with life in such a magnificent country. Regardless of the truly terrible conditions, she tried to see as much as she could. Anita, too, was proud of her experience all her life and could even speak some Persian.
Why did they make British-controlled Palestine their final destination?
If grandma Irena had had her way, today I would be an Iranian citizen. But grandpa Lolek insisted that the family move to Palestine. He was particularly bothered by the huge Soviet embassy in Tehran and felt unsafe in Iran. Too close to Russia, he said. So they traveled by bus all the way from Tehran to Khorramshahr. They crossed the Shatt al-Arab to Basra. Then they went to Baghdad in a British military train. They went by bus from Baghdad to Amman in Trans-Jordan. Of course, they got stuck in the sands in the middle of the desert. But by 1942, they were in Jerusalem drinking orange juice.
From what I know about Iran, they were and still are hospitable to refugees, and we should appreciate them for that. King Cyrus the Great helped the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem. Modern Iranians offered safe haven to Holocaust survivors and to Jewish refugees escaping from Iraq, helping them to safely travel to Jerusalem. These are events worth remembering.
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